Are Red Bull getting ready to quit F1?
“Ecclestone cited Red Bull’s serial success as primary reason for F1’s dwindling TV ratings”
like,” he said, stung, say sources close to him, by widespread accusations that his team had obtained an unfair advantage. “We have had it all, but from our perspective there is a clear limit to what we can accept.”
His message is unequivocal: exclude my quadruple-title-winning team, and Red Bull is out of here. But what is the real motivation for this threat? It can’t be the fairness, or otherwise, of the Tribunal. Consider that one of the rst reforms instituted by FIA President Jean Todt after taking ofce in 2009 was a restructure of the FIA’s judicial system, from a World Motor Sport Council – usually presided over by Todt’s predecessor, Max Mosley – to a transparent and independent body drawing on legal specialists representing 14 countries (and nominated in part by the F1 teams).
Clearly then, the FIA are no position to inuence the verdict, as became clear during the hearing into the Mercedes/Pirelli tyre test last year, when the FIA found itself heavily criticised. Given that Red Bull were among those whose protests set that judicial process in motion, Mateschitz must surely be aware of the tribunal’s independence.
It’s interesting to decode Mateschitz’s reference to “sporting fairness, political inuence and the like”. Red Bull enjoyed a £100m slice of F1’s 2013 revenues – within 3 per cent of that netted by Ferrari, who are allocated a larger proportion than other teams on account of their iconic status, and 60 per cent up on the earnings of Mercedes and McLaren, not to speak of a 200 per cent premium over Lotus. Clearly Mateschitz is in no position to question “sporting fairness”, for money ultimately buys performance.
As for “political inuence”, how much more does he crave? The two Red Bull teams provide twice the votes of, say, Ferrari or McLaren at Formula 1 Commission meetings. Red Bull sit on F1’s newly devised Strategy Group – which frames regulations – by right. Horner regularly dines with FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone, and last year went on holiday with the octogenarian.
Clearly, Mateschitz’s sabre-rattling is rooted elsewhere, likely in engine partner Renault’s woes. Already he is talking of manufacturing his own engines, as described in this column last month – much as he acquired Jaguar Racing before restructuring the beleaguered team into the lean, mean ghting machine it has become.
There exists, though, every possibility that Mateschitz is preparing for an exit. Despite being contractually committed Red Bull to F1 until 2020 – hence Strategy Group clout and a 20 per cent share of F1’s revenues – he has a powerful card in race sponsorship. Witness his promotion of the Austrian GP at the Red Bull Ring. Offer title sponsorship of three races for six years as a softener, and Ecclestone will surely be receptive.
Why this possibility, particularly when his team are cresting a wave? The answer lies in the law of diminishing returns. No matter how many more titles Red Bull grab, they cannot provide the same return as that rst crown in 2010. And audience fatigue is setting in: Sebastian Vettel was booed last year on podiums, while Ecclestone cited Red Bull’s serial successes as the primary reason for F1’s dwindling 2013 TV ratings.
The secret, as Benetton – the rst commercial entity to score titles through team ownership – learned to their cost, is strategic withdrawal, not bumbling exit. By laying the ground in advance of the tribunal, Mateschitz has hedged his bets regardless of its outcome: if Red Bull withdraw, he can cite ‘Fuel-gate’ as a tipping point.
Canny, sure – but such canniness took Mateschitz from trainee detergent salesman to multi-billionaire…